Senator's Defection May Doom Milk Bill
By RAYMOND HERNANDEZ
WASHINGTON, May 15 — James M. Jeffords, the longtime Republican senator
from Vermont, recently
discovered how risky it is to defy the White House.
The administration has hinted that because he refused to support the
president's spending and tax-cutting package
at a crucial moment it may derail one of the senator's most cherished pieces of legislation, a measure to assist
some dairy farmers, including those in his state.
The standoff shows just how much is at stake for the new administration
as it attempts to establish its authority
here at a time when it needs every Republican vote in an evenly divided Senate.
The bill in question would let farmers in Vermont and other Northeastern
states join a federally sanctioned dairy
cartel that could set higher milk prices for farmers. Many dairy farmers argue that the legislation is crucial to their
survival since the last few years have brought them rising costs and stagnant income.
The bill would have had a hard enough time getting through Congress
because many influential lawmakers from
the Midwest oppose it because it undercuts farmers in their states and artificially inflates milk prices for
But the spat between Mr. Jeffords and the White House has created an
even greater sense of uncertainty. "Milk is
a regional blood sport inside the dynamics of Congress," said Representative Thomas M. Reynolds, a
Republican from upstate New York who supports the dairy measure. "It's always a tough fight."
While the White House has not made the threat explicitly, word of it
was featured in an article last week in The
Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, and Northeastern lawmakers in Congress say they are alarmed. The concern has
heightened because Senator Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat opposed to a Northeast dairy cartel, is pushing
hard to get the White House on his side. Mr. Kohl may have increased what chances he had when he crossed
party lines to back the White House at a crucial point in the budget fight.
Representative John M. McHugh, a Republican from upstate New York, said
news of the dispute troubled him
enough that he and other supporters of the dairy legislation planned to send the White House a letter saying it
would not be Mr. Jeffords alone who would suffer if the legislation fails.
"There seems to be a suggestion that burying the compact will only be
felt by Mr. Jeffords; that's a very wrong
assumption," Mr. McHugh said. "For my farmers, it could literally make the difference between staying on the
farm and going out of business."
Claire Buchan, a spokeswoman for the White House, would not comment
on the matter beyond delivering a
statement that, in part, said: "Any decision that is made will be based on what is best for the American people.
Right now, the action is with the Congress."
But several lawmakers and their aides say they are concerned that the
administration's displeasure with Mr.
Jeffords will further imperil the dairy measure. (Mr. Jeffords' refusal to support President Bush's original $1.6
trillion tax-cut proposal, despite lobbying from Vice President Dick Cheney himself, forced the administration to
accept a smaller, $1.35 trillion package.)
In an interview last week, Mr. Jeffords expressed concern over the situation.
But he noted that the Bush
administration, in its attempt to single him out, may run the risk of punishing lawmakers from other states who
have a strong stake in the dairy measure.
"It certainly would get them concerned, if not upset," Mr. Jeffords
said of his colleagues, in his characteristically
"Vindictiveness doesn't sit well with people," he continued. "Decisions
made in that way don't sit well, nothing to
do with the real issue."
The federal government sets milk prices under a complex system generally
intended to ensure even distribution
and fair pricing. The legislation Mr. Jeffords is seeking would allow dairy farmers in Vermont and a handful of
other states to continue participating in a dairy cartel that can set higher prices for wholesale milk.
The regional dairy group was created several years ago by Congress and
directly affects New England states. The
law authorizing it will expire in the fall unless Congress passes legislation to reauthorize it and the president signs
it. The cartel, known as the Northeast Dairy Compact, has increased consumer milk prices in New England by
setting a minimum milk price that farmers charge dairy processors.
But the issue has implications beyond New England. Five nearby states
— New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania,
Delaware and Maryland — would also be allowed to join the Northeast Dairy Compact. The bill would also allow
states from other regions of the country to create their own dairy cartels.
Representative John E. Sweeney, a Republican from upstate New York,
expressed misgivings that the dairy
compact has become a hostage in an unrelated dispute.
"I've already talked to people at the White House and told them that
there are a lot of Republicans and their
constituents who support the continuation and expansion of the compact," he said. "I view this as a life and death
issue for the people I represent."